Christmas Box No. 1: Unfinished business

Bruckner: Symphony No 9

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Eugen Jochum/Staatskapelle Dresden – Bruckner: Symphonies 8 & 9

Bruckner tried to finish this work for two years before his death (1896) - that he wasn't able to suggests that he didn't have the wherewithal to complete his most challenging score. It is a tale of redemption in some ways - the uncertainty flailing of the first movement with its eight seemingly unconnected sections, the terrifying scherzo and trio and the grand emotional gestures of the crowning Adagio make a complete picture of a journey from light to dark - like many of Bruckner's works. The working out of his vision requires patience and rewards it many times over.

The unquiet heart of the composer - who'd life bordered on madness too often - takes us through a disturbed landscape and pulls us through the other side. Bruckner dedicated the work to Almighty God and one could see how, in his mind, that even his best attempt couldn't do the dedicatee justice.

The peace and serenity only make sense when the first half of the work is not just heard but endured. Why would I do that with a piece of art, I often think to myself. I'm not sure but the answer is not dissimilar to the answer a long distance runner would give - yes there is pain, but its only pain - and if endured the prize is great. In this case we hear Bruckner's glacially slow musical process working out over long spans of music.

The crunching drama in the first movement is punched by discordant climaxes which will make the unwary shift uneasily and reach for the off switch. Stick with these and you'll see how Bruckner's world crumbles to nothing by the end of the work. Like an accumulation of riches one is left in awe of the simplicity of his message.

I don't listen to this work often - it is too precious to be paraded often and, to a great extent, even I find it difficult to be familiar with the piece even after 30 years of acquaintance. The first movement's restless air is in many ways modern for the time it was written and had more to do with those turn of the 20th century composers like Schonberg and Webern, Bruckner isn't often given credit for this. Indeed the piece was so radical for its time Bruckner's friends and followers drastically "normalised" its content and a more authentic version wasn't heard until 1932.

The scherzo is wholly wild and and spooky - it slips and slides around a beat which becomes so insistent at times its maddening. Like many of Bruckner'sscherzi its his most accessible music - an ideal place to start, but by no means a place to stay.

And the last movement weaves a long and arduous path to heavenly light. The music builds to crashing climaxes, dissonant and painfully achieved. The trick with Bruckner is to trust that he will lead you to a better place and he does: he always does. A heart battered is not a new thing for any of us and a heart uplifted at the end of the journey is what we want.

Bruckner delivers us to a place of serenity, though its is interesting to speculate where we would have taken us in the completed work. I'm uninterested in scholarly completions of the fragments of the last movement which survive. I'm content with the unfinished work as it stands.

Bruckner gives us a little over an hour of some of the most challenging music there is - it's worth listening to if you have the patience and an open mind. Its value comes in repeated hearings which each time bring a deeper and more telling realisation of tensions. In themidst of all the gloom of winter: Bruckner provides hope of sun and light.


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